After the festive season of over-indulgence, most of us are determined to leave our bad habits behind and turn over a new leaf. New Year’s resolutions, like losing weight and saving money, are easy to make but can be very difficult to stick to.
Although most of us start out with good intentions, most resolutions tend to fall by the wayside by February when those bad habits slowly make a return. However, some scientists and psychologists believe that you can, in fact, kick a habit in 21 days, or at least make a very promising start to quitting your bad habit for good within that timeframe.
What are habits?
The idea that a habit can be created or kicked within 21 days was first suggested by Maxwell Maltz in his book ‘Psycho-Cybernetics’, published in 1960. A cosmetic surgeon, Maltz stated that his patients required approximately 21 days to become comfortable with their new appearance, suggesting that this is the length of time is takes to adjust to a new state or situation.
From lighting up a cigarette after each meal to mindlessly eating in front of the TV every night, habits are actions that we repeat over and over again – sometimes without even thinking.
Psychologist, Dr Phillippa Lally suggests that ‘habits are acquired through incremental strengthening of the association between a situation (cue) and an action (behaviour)’. This may explain why we enter routines, such as eating in front of the TV; it’s what we’re used to and it’s what feels normal to us, thus we experience comfort when acting out those habits.
How are habits formed?
Dr Lally has stated that “to create a habit you need to repeat the behaviour in the same situation. It is important that something about the setting where you perform the behaviour is consistent so that it can cue the behaviour.”
For example, if you’re in the habit of tucking into something sweet after your lunch, you’ll still reach for a sugary fix even if you eat lunch at slightly different times each day. So, putting ourselves in the same situations each time is the reason why trying to change your behaviour can often seem like an uphill struggle.
If this sounds like you, you’re not alone. According to research by YouGov, almost one third of UK adults usually give up on their resolutions by the end of January. But according to studies conducted by Dr John Norcross, there’s no need to be disheartened. He said: “You are 10 times more likely to change by making a New Year’s resolution compared to non-resolvers with the identical goals and comparable motivation to change.”
What are the most common habits?
The same 2015 YouGov survey revealed the most popular New Year’s resolutions amongst adults in the UK. Unsurprisingly, many of them were centred around adopting a healthier lifestyle. They included:
- Lose weight
- Get fitter
- Eat more healthily
- See more of friends/family
- Find more time for myself
- Get a better work-to-life balance
- Stop drinking alcohol/drink less alcohol
- Give up smoking
How do you break a bad habit?
Based on research carried out at Duke University, making a change to the cues or situations that trigger so-called bad habits could be the key to breaking them. One study showed that people with the habit of buying fast food at a certain place or time of day had a tendency to keep buying it, even after they had decided that they wanted to stop.
Wendy Wood, professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University says: “Once you form a habit, it takes willpower to inhibit the triggered response. If you don’t have the energy to override the response, you tend to repeat what you’ve done in the past.”
So, to stop yourself from wolfing down that bag of chips, take a route home that avoids your local chippy. If you want to cut down on alcohol, meet your friends for a coffee rather than in the pub where you’re bound to cave in to having a pint or two.
As well avoiding cues, time is another factor. Considering that it takes time to develop bad habits and negative behaviours, it’s unrealistic to expect that you can give them up all of a sudden. Focus on changing one thing at a time and it’s possible that you’ll be more likely to succeed.
Break big goals like losing weight into smaller ones you can achieve more easily. Rather than committing yourself to losing several stone in one year, aim to lose a few pounds each month. Likewise, if you lead an inactive lifestyle don’t set yourself the task of going to the gym seven days a week and expect to stick to it. Going from couch potato to gym bunny straight away is only setting yourself up to fail. Instead, dedicate two or three days a week to exercise that you’ll be more likely to stick to.
They say old habits die hard, but it’s possible to banish bad habits and make positive lifestyle changes that will last a lifetime.
Take part in our #21Days journey and kick your bad habit!